On March 15 2017, Texas Instruments (TI) announced enhancements to its SimpleLink microcontroller (MCU) platform. TI’s new additions and brief descriptions are listed below:
- SimpleLink CC3220 Wi-Fi wireless microcontroller (MCU): Consist of an ARM Cortex-M4 application MCU and a Wi-Fi network processor
- SimpleLink CC3120 Wi-Fi network processor: Standalone Wi-Fi network processor for developers that want to use a separate MCU
- SimpleLink MCU Standard Development Kit (SDK): Newly updated SimpleLink MCU development environment that enables code reuse across different devices
The three key benefits offered by TI’s SimpleLink MCU platform enhancements are explained below:
- Reduced power consumption: According to TI, the new CC3220 MCU has made 30% improvement in power consumption from the previous generation. TI says the power consumption improvement will allow extended battery life under various low power modes.
- End-to-end security features: The SimpleLink CC3220 MCU offers more than 25 security features. These security features have been designed to protect three common exposure points that include physical access, local area network (LAN) and internet connection.
- Faster development cycle: SimpleLink MCU SDK offers industry standard APIs, TI drivers and TI RTOS that are used as building blocks for software development. These standardized software tools and the codes written by the developers can be reused by different SimpleLink MCUs allowing companies to port its software and expand its product offerings in a short period of time.
Due to its high power consumption, the use of Wi-Fi in low power applications has been limited. In order to address the high power consumption issue, leading low power Wi-Fi semiconductor companies - such as Telit (recently acquired GainSpan), Microchip (acquired Atmel and Roving Networks) and Texas Instruments have been releasing low power Wi-Fi chips with incremental power consumption improvements. TI’s recent announcement of CC3220 MCU and CC3120 network processor is part of this steady trend of low powered Wi-Fi chips with improved power efficiencies.
One common feature that is being included in all the low powered Wi-Fi chips is the ability to disconnect from the Wi-Fi access point and go into a power saving mode. The addition of power saving mode has enabled Wi-Fi devices to minimize power consumption when the device is not connected to the access point. Over the past few years, many Wi-Fi products that use a power saving mode have been released in the market. The summary table below includes low power Wi-Fi use cases, their frequencies of connecting to the internet and the current rate of Wi-Fi standard adoption:
As seen in the summary table, low power Wi-Fi chips are widely adopted in the market place in products where Wi-Fi connects to the access point when an event is triggered - such as when a fire is detected, doorbell button is pressed. On the other hand, in use where a Wi-Fi enabled device needs to regularly connect to the gateway, adoption of the Wi-Fi standard has been low. For instance, if a smart door lock receives a command to open a door from a remotely located smartphone, the Wi-Fi chip has to be designed either to constantly listen to the access point or to frequently wake up from the power saving mode and check for a command from the server. In both cases, the high power consumption make it prohibitive or impractical to use the Wi-Fi standard.
During a recent call with IHS, TI’s representative mentioned that the company has already been shipping its new SimpleLink Wi-Fi MCUs to home automation and home security product vendors. TI’s power efficient CC3220 MCU is a good example of how Wi-Fi is slowly becoming an viable option in low power applications in which a device can connect to access points more frequently than before while maintaining a decent battery life.
Although the power consumption of leading Wi-Fi chips is still an order of magnitude higher than other leading low power wireless standards, a Wi-Fi enabled IoT device that connects to a cloud server has an advantage over other low power wireless counterparts – such as ZigBee or Z-wave devices - since it can directly connect to a Wi-Fi access point without connecting to an intermediary hub or a gateway. With this clear differentiation, each new introduction of a Wi-Fi chip with improved power efficiency will expand the use cases for Wi-Fi in low power applications.